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Mendelssohn and Wolf Seeking Connections


Esther Ning Yau (file photo)
Esther Ning Yau (file photo)

Emmanuel Music continued its examination of the chamber music of Felix Mendelssohn and all 53 songs from Gedichte von Eduard Mörike fur eine Singstimme und Klavier by Hugo Wolf on Sunday in the Parish Hall. The objective seems to be revealing unsuspected connections between the two composers when their works are interspersed; I confess I didn’t perceive any connections, separated as these compositions are by 60+ years and the Himalayan divide of Richard Wagner. But it was nevertheless satisfying to hear a mixture of the well-known and lesser-known in mostly accomplished performances. And among the songs, at least, there were cross-references, even at times suggestions of storylines.

In Wolf’s “Der Knabe und das Immlein” (The Boy and the Bee), soprano Roberta Anderson and pianist Esther Ning Yau portrayed the day’s sultriness giving way to the infatuated boy’s eager questioning of the bee about his inamorata. Anderson’s airy, limpid sound was well matched by Yau’s many delicate trills (the bee’s buzzing) in the piano’s uppermost register. “Frage und Antwort” (Question and Answer) had notable parallels: a languid opening asking: whence did your shy love arise and why haven’t you removed its sting? The final non-answer—you might as well try to stop the gusting wind, etc.—brought a smile. Anderson gave us a lovely subito piano on the high note of “Zaubergerte” (magic wand). “Der Jäger” (The Huntsman) continued the theme of love’s vicissitudes with two lovers sulking at each other, but baritone David Kravitz’s mostly high-volume approach seemed more hectoring and angry than sulky. At the end, though, the bad weather (literal and metaphorical) receded into the distance, and again we were left smiling. “Lied vom Winde” (Song of the Wind) also poses an unanswerable question—where is love’s homeland, its beginning and end—and “answers” it by likening love to the volatility of the wind. Kravitz impressed in the gale-force passages, of course, but also in the more beseeching moments. Yau also painted the scene well, ranging from pianissimo rustlings to lashing chromatic-scale gusts. In “Das verlassene Mägdlein” (The Forsaken Servant-Girl) Anderson and Yau movingly evoked the desolation of the title figure, missing only the suddenness of the stab of pain at “Plötzlich” (suddenly) as she abruptly awakens from numbness. “Peregrina II,” recounting the visitation of the ghost of a deceased lover, had plenty of passion from Kravitz but too often was oppressively loud in the intimate venue of Emmanuel Church’s parish hall; a truly beautiful pianissimo at “es war dein Geist” (it was your spirit) left one longing to hear its like more often.

Mendelssohn wrote his Sonata in F Minor for Violin and Piano, Op. 4, at age 14 (publishing it two years later), and it shows that the young composer was rather more interested in expressing himself than giving brilliant executants opportunities to strut their stuff. An omission in the program, though, might have carried this impression too far, initially: the movements were listed as: I Adagio; II Poco Adagio; III Allegro agitato. In fact, the first movement’s introduction is Adagio, but the main part is Allegro moderato. Violinist Heather Braun and Yau effectively created melancholy in the first movement, though Yau’s occasionally over-generous pedaling was more Romantic than this Classically-oriented music called for. In the second movement, as well, older composers, especially Beethoven, had audible influence. The artists gave us a handsomely lyrical main theme and contrasting moods in the middle. The final movement is notably more Romantic than the others, resembling the more agitated Lieder ohne Worte (Songs Without Words) for piano that won Mendelssohn widespread fame. Offering violinist and pianist some moderate technical display, it is characterized by rapidly repeated notes and chords. Braun and Yau generated some emotional heat and excitement here.

In “Wo find ich Trost” (Where Shall I Find Comfort), Mörike asks yet another impossible question. Having seen Christ’s pure, selfless love, the poet can’t reconcile his carnal desires with it, finishing, “What will save me from death and sin?” In fact, each time the question occurred, Kravitz and Yau built to powerful climaxes. Kravitz, particularly, leaned hard on key words as if self-flagellating: bitter, writhe, evil, terror, etc. “In der Frühe” (In Early Morning) makes a logical extension of the preceding, starting in the minor, angst-ridden, deep in the piano. But it is the end of a dark night of the soul as both vocal and piano parts soon begin to rise and shift to the major. Kravitz, with impressive breath control in some long phrases, skillfully lightened his vocal color, pointing toward hope as the morning bells began to sound. “Zum neuen Jahr” (For the New Year) goes further in the same vein: morning comes in like an angel on rosy feet . . . Lord, may everything be placed in your hands. Emerging from the previous songs’ guilt, pain, and uncertainty, this lied had the glow of reassurance in Anderson’s and Yau’s warm, simple rendering. Spring was the subject of the set’s last two songs—a welcome distraction from plunging temperatures locally! “Er ist’s” (It Is He) was especially delicious, initially full of barely-restrained excitement, lush harmonies, the stirring climb to the summit (“Yes, it’s you!”), and one of the over-the-top, one-page-plus, pyrotechnical piano postludes Wolf permitted himself from time to time. The climax was full and rich from both Anderson and Yau, betraying no strain or effort.

The third and last group of songs dealt with mythical beings. First came “Der Feuerreiter” (The Fire Rider), Wolf’s answer to Schubert’s “Erlkönig;” the accompaniment is near-superhuman and the singer gets to tell a scary story, in this case, both on-scene reportage of a mill burning to the ground and the eerie aftermath. Kravitz and Yau made it quite a fright, beginning with nervous whispers and growing to a succession of wild climaxes. Yau coped well with the ferocious piano part: only at its chordal climax did the chords hollow to the outer octaves. Kravitz again managed to highlight some key words though a big one—“Gerippe” (skeleton—not an everyday word in Lieder!) passed casually. Otherwise, the sepulchral final stanza was chilling. “Nixe Binsefuss” (The Water-Sprite Reedfoot) opposes one mortal (a fisherman) while granting boons to another (his servant-girl), as she darts through the water. Anderson again used her bright tone to good effect but lacked the ideal otherworldliness; Yau came closer to it but at the cost of a few notes that didn’t sound. Rounding off was “Zur Warnung” (By Way of Warning), cautioning poets not to summon the muse when hung over. Wolf’s comic genius doesn’t require assistance, but the audience loved the clever choreography: Anderson “waking up” Kravitz who walked a little unsteadily to the piano, loosening his tie and squinting (the immortal line from a “hung” Auntie Mame leapt to mind: “Child, how can you see with all that light?”). Yau aided and abetted with slightly unsteady rhythm and subtly blurred harmonies. The baritone gave hilariously vulgar emphasis to “schnöden Bafel” (vile doggerel) before yell-singing the actual doggerel. The poet finds his salvation in the hair of the dog that bit him, i.e., a bottle of wine that previously escaped his notice. The triumphant ending was comedic gold.

Arnei Quartet (Linder photo0
Arneis Quartet (Linder photo0

The printed program concluded with Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 13 “Ist es Wahr?” (Is it True?), but since the composer quotes his own song “Frage” in it, we were treated first to a performance of the song by Anderson and Yau; the quoted phrase—“Is it true you’ll always wait for me beneath the arbor?”—was sung with youthful expectancy. The Arneis Quartet—Heather Braun & Rose Drucker, violins; Daniel Doña, viola; Agnes Kim, cello—was sweet and soulful in the Adagio A major introduction before the troubled A minor Allegro vivace. The playing had passion but also impressive dynamic and rhythmic unification, and ability to turn on a dime. The Arneis gave the second movement’s lingering melodies a burnish which became bright and silvery when played an octave higher in the recapitulation. The third movement encompassed both a minuet-like main theme and, in the middle, a scherzetto reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s fairy music; the playing was exquisitely ethereal. Most of the drama was concentrated in the finale with its diminished-seventh tremolos and driving rhythm. Near the end, a more extended fragment of “Frage” is quoted, and if the song’s text doesn’t provide a definitively affirmative answer, Mendelssohn’s music did in the Arneis’s compelling performance.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.

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